President Reagan sounded his swan song last week before 250 senior political appointees herded into the White House to hear what might have been called an abridged version of "The Collected Works of Ronald Reagan."
In a 13-minute speech that was supposed to lay out his remaining agenda, Reagan retired to the rhetorical litany that propelled him into office and has kept him there. After more than two decades as a government man, Reagan is still capable of denouncing government with a straight face. His targets are "boondoggle public works projects . . . the $8 million Congress voted this year to establish -- get ready -- a center for the study of weeds" and "the federal program that will spend millions to build luxury hotels, restaurants and condominiums -- that's right, condominiums."
Other politicians have built careers by campaigning against "government" in general and "Washington" in particular. But Reagan is in a class by himself. After massively raising California's taxes as governor and helping to create history's largest federal deficit as president, Reagan still has the chutzpah to come out four-square against government spending as if he had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
The handpicked audience ignored the economic hokum and saved dutiful applause for such real agenda items as aid to the Nicaraguan contras and confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork. Reagan's cadres know that his basic domestic themes never change.
Most of last week's material, for instance, would have fit nicely into the "time for choosing" television speech for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that launched Reagan's national career Oct. 27, 1964. Then, Reagan denounced the federal government for overspending on welfare, housing, education and military supermarkets. Ridiculing foreign-aid eccentricities in 1964 with the same mild exasperation he expressed last week about federal condominiums, Reagan said, "We bought dress suits for Greek undertakers. We bought 1,000 TV sets, with 23-inch screens, for a country where there is no electricity, and some of our foreign-aid funds provided extra wives for Kenya government officials."
Reagan's fondness for odd facts and stray statistics has deeper roots than the Goldwater speech. They are an essential part of his basic ritual, developed as a Democrat, of identifying with the common folk against the unreasoning forces of big government. In a 1948 radio talk on behalf of President Harry S Truman and Senate nominee Hubert H. Humphrey, Reagan related how a 91-year-old craftsman had been forced to return to work because his savings had been eaten away by "Republican inflation."
However, Reagan is more than the sum of his anecdotes. He is first and foremost a performer who understands the importance of finishing well. "Political life has always reminded me a little of my former career, and the whole philosophy was, when you come to town, open big," Reagan told his top appointees. "And now, well, it's time for an even bigger finish and a good curtain call."
There were moments during the speech when the 76-year-old president seemed prematurely ready for a final bow. Physically, he is a marvel who has survived a serious bullet wound, major cancer surgery, three minor operations and the stress of a political scandal that would have ruined a lesser man. But Reagan is no longer as keen as he used to be, even with a script, and his aides dare not expose him to a news conference. Last week, Reagan repeatedly fumbled his lines, once saying his administration had "more than six years behind us and just six more months to go."
What will probably pull Reagan through to the final curtain 16 months away is the inordinate determination that prompts him to stand up for the contras and Bork and to push for an economic agenda that has lost its standing with Congress and the country. Reagan is staggering through the final act, but he has a performer's persistence. He knows his exit lines, and he is going out the same way he came in.
Reaganism of the Week: Finishing his speech last Tuesday, the president said: "May I conclude with a little Irish blessing, although some suggest it's a curse. May those who love us, love us. And those who don't love us, may God turn their hearts. And if he doesn't turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we'll know them by their limping."